Physical Fitness Is Not Physical Conditioning

By Ed Hadfield

Recently, I had the great pleasure of having Tamer Gurmen as our guest on the August 22, 2012 CrossFit 4 Fire Blog talk radio show (CLICK HERE to listen.) Tamer is a nationally recognized CrossFit mobility coach and the current strength and mobility coach for San Diego SWAT.

During the broadcast, we discussed the factors associated with tactical personnel functioning properly under extreme stress and sleep deprivation conditions. This is an important conversation, as it has a direct correlation to the functions of the fire service athlete and how firefighters throughout the American fire service perform on a daily basis.

Tamer stated, “There are no magic answers to the questions.” However, we can learn from the training developed within the SEAL and SWAT communities. As this discussion has gone back and forth over the past week, one very important factor continues to shine through: The key to any success in the application of your craft is to prepare the mind and body for the rigors of the job. Training is more than movements and tasks. Proper training is the physical and mental application of conditioning the mind and body for the rigors of the incident. This lesson should never go unnoticed, and the origins of this training application should never be forgotten.

The Newhall Incident involved a shootout between two heavily armed criminals and officers of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in the Newhall unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, California, on April 6, 1970. In less than five minutes, four CHP officers were killed in what was at the time the deadliest day in the history of California law enforcement. After the shootout, the circumstances of the event were scrutinized, causing the CHP and other police departments to re-examine their methods of training and tactics. In a nutshell, their training had let them down. These officers were good officers who were doing a dangerous job and applied the training standards of their time to the incident. Yet, as a result of failed training methods, four good young men/officers lost their lives to two criminals who had no concern for their welfare.

The fire service can and should continue to take note of this historic incident and recognize the importance of functional training as the basis of our training modalities, not only from a performance standpoint but also from a safety point of view. The issue of adaptability and performance in high-stress situations while functioning in a sleep-deprived stated is rarely discussed in the fire service, yet, the SEAL teams and SWAT operators train to this standard regularly. They do so to survive and function properly in arenas of extreme stress and hostile environments.

A decorated special operations military veteran and current SWAT operator in a major metropolitan city had this to say (Note: We will keep his identity anonymous for obvious reasons):

“Having discussed critical situations with police officers and fellow soldiers, it is my belief the following help see you succeed in various situations faced by fire, police, and combat veteran.”

  • Physical fitness. Being physically fit is obviously very important. Vary your workouts with CrossFit-type training, but at the same time incorporate your job-specific set skills. For example, try a “fight gone bad” workout where you have to load and engage targets with various firearms in between stations. In the case of fire personnel, toss in a physical rescue of an injured person. Add in the stress by specifying that the injured person’s injuries have to be stabilized to the best of your ability prior to lifting and moving your patient. Your trainer or workout partner can vary the type of injuries.
  • Exposure to traumatic and stressful situations. You can incorporate stress into your training, but you can’t train in exposure to and surviving actual traumatic situations. That is something you just accumulate over the years of being a firefighter, police officer, or a combat veteran.

An Example

A young soldier and I were struck by a sniper’s bullet in Al Adhamiyah, Iraq. I felt something hit me in the front of my throat and heard the loudest “crack” I had ever heard in my life. The round pulled me slightly forward. When I turned and asked the soldier next to me if I was hit, I could see blood streaming from his right arm and heard him say he was hit. He fell to the ground in the middle of the road. I first looked around for where the sniper had fired from, but I was experiencing severe bad tunnel vision initially. I looked quickly around in an attempt to break up my tunnel vision. I grabbed the down soldier and dragged him out of the road behind cover. I then began triaging his wound. I wasn’t even the medic or corpsman on this mission. I was the oldest guy out on this patrol, but, having seen so many gunshot victims and vehicle accidents as a police SWAT officer, it was just like second nature to me. Again, the numerous times I had seen traumatic injuries in the field enabled my brain to think past the blood and the stress. It made me able to move and think on my feet. The medic who was with us froze for a bit, but calling out things I needed got her back into the game. The young medic later came and spoke to me after we returned to our forward operating base. She was upset and felt she did not do her job the way she was trained. I asked her how many field casualties she had triaged; she said this was her first. I told her I was a SWAT officer back home and had been so for many years. I told her I had conducted initial first aid for citizens many times at traumatic scenes. I told her she did fine given this was her first combat triage patient and I could pretty much guarantee she would not freeze up next time. I told her with time she would only get better, since every exposure to this type of stress, and continued training, would only make her a better her I was trained by our special trauma and rescue medics from fire-SWAT, so it was kind of like cheating. She smiled and felt a bit of relief.

  • A strong will and a warriors mind. I can take two operators of the same size, weight, and physical shape, but the one with the will to survive and keep a warrior’s mindset is going to come out on top every time. What I talked about in the above two paragraphs is essential to prepare for stress, trauma, and combat situations. However, without a strong will and a warrior’s mindset, you may not come out on top of whatever is tossed at you. Cockiness does you no good, but confidence and telling yourself there is no way in hell you’re not surviving this situation are absolute musts as a first responder or combat veteran. The importance of training your mind to function properly in stress environments when all of your body’s senses are screaming to stop is critical for a SWAT operator or a firefighter.

There is always an operator out there with more time outside the wire, more combat situations than the next guy or gal. I share this with you who are new to this way of life. I am always willing to learn, to try something new, to listen to someone who has been in combat or critical situations so I can further learn from their experiences. If even one thing you read here motivates you to get in the gym, hit a CrossFit class, get out to the range, and expand your skills, then I have not wasted my time.


As you can see, the importance of PHYSICAL CONDITIONING, not just physical fitness or physical training, but PHYSICAL CONDITIONING is critical to survival. We must continually ask ourselves, “Is the training I am participating in, or is my effort expended within this training, going to condition my mind and my body for the rigors of the incident?” If the answer is no, then it’s just a giant waste of time and minimal effort. To paraphrase, “Not all training is good. Only proper preparation and conditioning as the basis of training is effective on the fireground.”


Ed HadfieldEDWARD HADFIELD has more than 25 years of fire service experience and serves as a division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service, and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. He created and teaches company officer development programs and is a specialist in truck company operations, firefighter safety and survivability, and mission-focused command tactics. He was the 2004 California Training Officer of the Year. He has developed state and regional truck company academies in California, Washington, and Oregon.


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